As analog shutoff nears, blame game continues

Several powerful members of Congress say the FCC should be doing more to educate the public about the DTV transition. The FCC says that’s the job of another government agency; and, if Congress cares so much about DTV, where’s the money?

Congressional leaders, led by Reps. John Dingell, D-MI and Edward Markey, D-MA, think the analog shutoff is a public disaster waiting to happen.

They warn that most consumers are not aware of the transition to digital television and will be caught off guard after over-the-air analog signals are turned off Feb. 17, 2009. They place much of the blame for the lack of preparedness on FCC chairman Kevin Martin.

Martin responded that it was Congress that chose the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), a division of the Commerce Department, to handle DTV public education and to administer a coupon program to help analog viewers get low-cost digital conversion boxes.

“Congress explicitly gave NTIA the responsibility for both the coupon box program as well as consumer education about the digital transition generally,” Martin wrote the congressmen.

But Dingell, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and Markey, head of its Telecommunications and the Internet Subcommittee, think otherwise. “It is the commission that has primary responsibility among federal agencies for the overall digital television transition — to lead in consumer education about the transition,” they argued in a recent letter.

Martin also suggested to House members that if they want the FCC to increase consumer awareness, they should allocate more money for the purpose. “To the extent that Congress wishes to provide us with funds exceeding the $1.5 million we requested for consumer education efforts, we would welcome such an increase,” Martin wrote.

Dingell and Markey cried foul, saying that it was Martin who requested far too little money for the job because he gave it such a low priority.

The “National Journal” reported last week that Martin is circulating proposed rules that would enable the agency to use its existing authority to boost DTV education.

The proposal reflects several ideas suggested by the lawmakers, such as requiring cable and satellite providers to include DTV advisories in bills; requiring broadcasters to update the agency about educational efforts; requiring set manufacturers to include notices in equipment packaging; and mandating that retailers conduct employee training.